Perhaps the biggest problem in reforming American education is that it is just so big. We have more than 100,000 elementary and secondary schools, in which more than 3 million teachers teach more than 50 million kids. The schools, teachers, and kids are hugely diverse. Yet we have an enormous job of work to do to markedly improve learning outcomes in all of these schools.
Federal programs have demonstrated that programs can be scaled up to serve thousands of schools.
People who think about how to improve 100,000 schools, especially those who spend a lot of time inside the Washington beltway, tend to suggest two types of approaches to national school improvement. One emphasizes top-down, often very prescriptive policies to tell each school what to do; the other emphasizes setting general standards and then letting local schools do what they think is best to meet the standards. If the federal government provides a lot of funding, such as Title I to high-poverty schools and funding for special education, dollars come with rules that may also be either top-down, bottom-up, or some of both. States and districts seeking to improve outcomes in many schools think along similar lines.
The problems with top-down solutions are that educators often resist being told what to do, and the quality of implementation of anything imposed from on high is unlikely to be stellar. Evaluations of such initiatives find few benefits. Bottom-up reforms produce islands of excellence, but the great practices of exemplary schools do not spread even locally, much less nationally, leaving overall outcomes little changed.
There is a third approach to widespread school improvement that perhaps has greater potential to significantly improve teaching and learning on a large scale. This is evidence-based reform, which means development, evaluation, and scaling up of proven approaches to enduring educational problems. In a policy environment favoring evidence-based reform, educators have encouragement and resources to choose among proven, practical approaches to, say, teaching algebra, ensuring reading success for young learners, managing classrooms, or increasing high school graduation rates. They don’t have to use these programs, but if they decide to do so, they can be confident that they’re likely to work because they’ve been rigorously evaluated in schools like theirs (that is, the programs have been evaluated in experiments that compare schools using them to those using usual practices). Further, there would be incentives to use programs that meet a given standard of evidence, such as a few competitive preference points on grant applications.
Can proven programs really go to national scale? Over the years, federal programs have demonstrated that programs can be scaled up to serve thousands of schools.
National Diffusion Network (NDN)
First, there was the National Diffusion Network (NDN). Between 1979 and 1996, NDN invited program developers of all kinds to be reviewed by a Joint Dissemination Review Panel, which certified the program’s effects, likelihood of going to scale, and practical utility.
The program made “developer-dissemination” grants (at about $25,000 per year) to developers of promising programs. State facilitators were established in each state to promote the use of the appropriate programs. By the end of the NDN funding, thousands of schools were using one of more than 500 programs.
Comprehensive School Reform (CSR)
Beginning in 1991, a coalition of large corporations established New American Schools (NAS) to help fund innovators to create comprehensive whole-school reform models. Out of 700 applications, 11 were initially selected, and seven of these were maintained after initial testing. These models began to be used in hundreds of schools collectively. NAS held “effective methods fairs” in selected districts. Hundreds of principals, teachers, and school board members came to learn about the models. They could ask representatives of one or more models to present at their schools. They then had a chance to contract with the models they chose. Starting in 1998, the Obey-Porter Act in Congress established incentive funding of at least $50,000 per year for three years for schools to implement comprehensive school reforms of their choice. This caused an outpouring of interest both in the NAS models and in others that were assembled to resemble NAS models. Within a few years, more than 2,500 Title I schools receiving CSR funding and another 3,500 schools adopted these models without CSR funding, mostly using existing Title I funds.
Evaluations of the CSR models began in the 1990s and continued into the early 2000s. They found consistent positive effects for some of the programs. Obey-Porter funding ended in 2003, but many of the school programs continued without Obey-Porter funding for many years, up to the present.
Investing in Innovation (i3)
The election of Barack Obama in 2008 brought in an administration eager to expand the use of research-proven programs in education and other fields. In a program called Investing in Innovation (i3), educational programs are being funded in one of three categories: scale-up, validation, or development. To qualify for scale-up grants, programs must have strong, positive, replicated outcomes in rigorous evaluations. Validation requires a single positive study, and development grants only require a strong theory of action. It’s too early to say how these grants will work, but scale-up and validation projects are working in hundreds of additional schools under i3 funding and are developing capacity to do more. All of the programs are being rigorously evaluated by third-party evaluators.
NDN, CSR, and i3 have established beyond any doubt that:
- With encouragement and modest funding, thousands of schools will eagerly adopt research-proven programs.
- Organizations willing and able to support school adoptions nationally will come forward and operate effectively if government helps them with R&D funding and helps schools overcome initial funding barriers.
- Many educational innovations have developed strong evidence of effectiveness, but a strong evidence base without government encouragement and incentives does not lead to robust adoptions.
- The idea that innovations must be created by the schools that use them has clearly been disproven. Schools are willing and able to adopt proven programs developed elsewhere if they can afford them.
As reforms in federal education programs such as Title I, School Improvement Grants, and Race to the Top go forward, it makes sense to continue to develop, evaluate, and disseminate proven innovations. This approach can expand rapidly while maintaining quality at scale and can improve outcomes for millions of children.